Wednesday 9 November 2011

Let's Talk About Kevin

by Bob Snowden, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

Work in my laboratory looks at a range of problem behaviours that include violence to others, sexual crime and self injury. In particular, we deal with how we can assess the risks, manage these risk public protection, and help with recovery and rehabilitation. Inevitably such work must also take into consideration mental disorders and their possible effects on these behaviours – these include brain injury, mental illness, and personality disorders. One of the most prominent (and misunderstood) constructs is that of the “psychopath” – inevitably whenever a terrible and violent crime occurs, as those of Kevin in this story, one is tempted to simply label him as “psychopathic” and hope that this “explains” what has happened.

Psychopathy is actually a constellation of personality traits that include grandiosity, callousness, lack of remorse, and shallow affect. These, in turn, may allow for the production of antisocial and violent behaviour. In particular it is thought that most (and nearly all) instrumental homicides (those killings done in cold-blood such as Kevin’s) are perpetrated by psychopaths. Crucially, the psychopath is aware that their behaviours are “bad”, but nevertheless they choose to do them.

Certainly the film suggests that Kevin has these psychopathic traits and would meet diagnostic criteria for psychopathy (such as a high score on the Psychopathy Checklist, PCL-R). However, there appears to be more to him than the unfeeling and uncaring prototype of the psychopath. There also appears to be something akin to “evil” in that from birth he appears to be deliberately going out of his way to inconvenience, upset and hurt people (with little gain to himself). These “sadistic” tendencies have been noted in some psychopaths (but far from all) and such people are known as a “lethal cocktail”.

The crucial question then is “where do they come from”. In the film we are certainly given the impression that Kevin is born this way. Recent research does appear to find a strong genetic influence on psychopathy, but this needs to be put in perspective. First, there is not a gene for psychopathy, but many of the traits (such as callousness) may well have some genetic inheritance. Second, just because something is genetic doesn’t mean it will be apparent at birth (my male pattern baldness, for example, failed to show until my 30s!). It is clear that the expression of many genes is dependent upon the environment. Hence, you may have a bad gene or you may have a bad parent, but what you really don’t want is both a bad gene and a bad parent. I will leave it up to you to think as to whether Kevin had a bad parent……

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I really do find all these post-sciscreen essays fascinating so thanks to the speakers for taking the time to write these and to the sciscreen team for putting them up on the blog.
    'Kevin' was the first book that my reading group chose to read (3 1/2 years ago) so apologies if I'm recalling incorrectly. The book differs from the film in, what I feel, a couple of important respects. The book tells the story retrospectively from Eva's point of view (which the film tries to do but I'm not sure that's ever really possible in a cinematic format). On reading the book, you get a strong sense that Eva doesn't want children, that she has Kevin in order to 'test' her own emotions and maternal instincts (a selfish act which doesn't endear you to Eva right at the start). When that doesn't quite go the way she would like, she has a second child in order to appease her sense of self-blame, to demonstrate to herself that she is capable of such parental love and that Kevin was just 'born evil'. She attempts to 'wash her hands of him' which Kevin repays her by 'washing his sister's eye with drain cleaner'. The father's response to this in blaming Eva is the author's way of summing up the father's whole softly softly approach throughout and his inability to see the reality of the situation (as told by Eva). Kevin may appear contemptuous of his mother but he does respect her and he has a sense that she may 'understand' his actions and him better than anyone else and certainly not his father who he repays by taking his life. This is the other way in which the book differs from the film. It's written in a way that you are led to believe that the father is still alive, has custody of the daughter and no longer has anything to do with Kevin at all (which interestingly enough builds a greater sense of contempt for the father in a way that the film doesn't do). Is the question do you think Kevin had a bad parent or bad parents?
    As well as the standard nature vs nurture debate and the discussion of who's to blame, the biggest thing that divided our reading group was actually the punishment and response to the consequences of what Kevin had done. Some argued that it didn't matter whether it was genetic, environmental or an interaction between the two but that he should simply be permanently 'removed' from society so as not to do it again. The film hints at the potential to see a caring side of Kevin (when he's very ill as a child and when he's pumped with sedating drugs in the prison such that we see remorse). To me, research on the genetic and environmental contributions to such conditions is what will help us as a society understand causation better so that we are better equipped to make decisions on who is a danger to themselves and others and how best to deal with that.